Recently, I was returning from Nubble Cliff in the Giant Mountain Wilderness when I passed a tent on the southeast shore of the Giant’s Washbowl and heard someone breaking branches or dead trees, presumably gathering wood for a campfire.
Campfires are an Adirondack tradition. Who doesn’t like a fire when sleeping under the stars? Nevertheless, I couldn’t help thinking that this was not good for the environment. Rather, it was destructive.
The state Department of Environmental Conservation banned campfires in the eastern High Peaks for a reason. Over time, campers collecting wood left patches of forest virtually denuded. DEC banned campfires at 11 tent sites near waterways in the Essex Chain region lest the same thing happen there. (Fires also are prohibited on roads, trails, and parking areas on state lands.)
The department says damage to natural resources also is occurring at campsites near ponds and popular trails in the Saranac Lakes Wild Forest. The following is from a draft unit management plan for this part of the Forest Preserve:
“Some people may not understand why removal of dead wood is considered to be a problem. It is seen as a problem by land managers because dead wood provides important habitat for a variety of wildlife, slows erosion, and allows nutrients to be recycled back into the soil. In heavily-used areas, dead wood is collected and burned faster than it is created, [and] this results in an ever widening area of damage from people gathering wood. Secondary effects of wood gathering include damage to living vegetation and removal of standing dead trees, which is illegal.”
Nevertheless, DEC is not recommending a blanket ban on campfires in the Saranac Lakes Wild Forest. Instead, visitors will be encouraged to use cook stoves and refrain from building fires.
With today’s lightweight stoves, backpackers do not need to build fires to cook food or heat water. The main reason for campfires, aside from roasting marshmallows, is that people like them. They’re a connection to our primitive past.
But if campfires are unnecessary and if they lead to environmental degradation, has the time come to ban them throughout the Forest Preserve? Or at least in the popular areas of the Preserve? A ban could make an exception for roadside campsites to which people bring their own firewood.
DEC has never considered an all-out ban, though it has issued temporary bans during exceptionally dry periods. No doubt a ban or tougher regulations would be unpopular, but these are questions worth asking.
Photo of Giant’s Washbowl as seen from Nubble Cliff by Phil Brown.